Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why cuddling up to Orange Order would be a mistake for the DUP

Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr holds a police officer's helmet
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr holds a police officer's helmet
ACC Kerr with a shield belonging to one of his officers
ACC Kerr with a shield belonging to one of his officers
Police fight back flames during rioting in north Belfast at the weekend
Police fight back flames during rioting in north Belfast

Normally the first thought of governing parties is to support the police. In most societies, three nights of rioting in which 45 officers were injured would be met with straightforward condemnation – with any criticisms coming far down the list of concerns.

We saw an exception to the rule yesterday when a DUP delegation visited police headquarters to discuss the rioting which accompanied the PSNI's efforts to enforce a Parades Commission determination.

As they emerged, the politicians sounded like cheerleaders for the Orange Order and its concerns, not the critical friends it needs at this moment of crisis.

Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr started the morning by explaining the seriousness of the attacks on his officers. It had, he said in one interview, been "attempted murder". The PSNI displayed helmets hit by swords intended for use in Orange ceremonies, it told how officers had been attacked with petrol bombs, masonry and other missiles.

A DUP MP, Nigel Dodds, had even been felled by a missile himself.

None of this was raised by the party in a statement issued after the meeting with Mr Kerr.

Instead Nelson McCausland, the Executive minister who actually accompanied Mr Dodds to hospital in an ambulance, criticised the police for not doing enough to protect Orange marches, as did his colleague Gavin Robinson, the former Lord Mayor of Belfast.

The DUP, normally a law and order party, appears to have stuck closely to the agenda set out in an Orange Order statement issued shortly before the meeting.

There are obvious reasons for this synergy. The Orange Order is thought to have around 30,000 members. In 2009 the figure was 34,538, down from 93,447 in 1968 and falling steadily.

This is a shrinking but still considerable body of opinion. One Orange source believes that at least 80% of Orangemen and their families vote in elections, compared to 55% of the population as a whole. Following an Orange agenda could be tempting if you are a unionist in a swing seat, like North or East Belfast. Yet getting too close, and letting the Orange dictate the political agenda, is to flirt with danger and defeat.

The Order has been dragged kicking and screaming into every century since 1800. It opposed Catholic emancipation, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and even the introduction of the secret ballot. It has also been opposed to nearly every successful political reform since partition.

Yet it sees itself as the conscience of unionism and spelt out a contemporary political agenda in Twelfth speeches.

It includes stopping a peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze. That would mark a major U-turn for the DUP, which would necessitate a public eating of words by all the party's major figures from Peter Robinson down.

It would also put severe strains on the DUP's relationship with Sinn Fein and, together with other items on the Orange agenda, would put a question mark over the devolved institutions. The Order seems satisfied that the border is here to stay – "the siege is lifted" said the Rev Mervyn Gibson – but it wants to move on to a culture war with nationalists, secularists and liberals for the soul of Northern Ireland.

The culture war seems to involve more Union flags, less funding for the GAA, no gay marriage and no shared future until the Order can march where it likes. Those who aren't with the Order are against it; the Alliance Party was, for instance, described on a Twelfth platform as "Quislings".

The problem is that projects for unionist unity also tend to produce nationalist unity, and to promote suspicion between the two communities. That isn't good news for society in general; the Troubles of the last century started in a period when society was polarised between nationalism and unionism. The additional problem for unionism is that it cannot dominate again. The two communities are neck and neck in terms of numbers and there is an increasing centre ground which could hold the balance of power in disputes, as Alliance did in Belfast City Council over the flag issue.

Cuddling up to the Orange Order for immediate political advantage would be very short-sighted tactic for the DUP and would threaten its political dominance. It would shed some of the moderate voters it has attracted in recent years, perhaps more than it would gain.

It would be wiser to hose down the Order's enthusiasm and spell out the political realities. That involves accepting that Parades Commission rulings are legally binding unless and until a replacement is found.

It will involve accepting that unionists can only govern Northern Ireland with the agreement of others – which involves compromise and acceptance of legal authority when agreement cannot be reached.

Otherwise, we are all in trouble.

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